The readers’ editor on… the four-letter word conundrum

They look ugly in print and are often offensive, but sometimes they are necessary.

Look away now if you are easily offended. This column is going to deal in foul language and, in accordance with our editorial code, I won’t be sprinkling it with asterisks but will spell them out. You have been warned.

In nearly 10 years in this chair, I have avoided the thankless task of writing on this subject. Repeat the words complained of and you are accused of gratuitousness; rail against them and you are told you are prim and out of touch, but letters and emails sent after the Observer published an interview last month with actor and comedian Ricky Gervais have persuaded me finally to address the paper’s use of profanity.

The interview acknowledged that Gervais had become a global phenomenon with a comedy empire that reaches millions but, we were told, he is known to be a control freak and has to have the sometimes foul last word, some of which we quoted.

Rebecca Culling was typical in her objection to finding the words fuck and cunt in the interview. “Just why do your have to print such language?” she asks. “Surely it cannot be too difficult to asterisk out the middle of the words? You can’t tell me that reading this kind of language does not encourage people to use it themselves, especially children.”

Our editorial code attempts to tackle these points: “Respect for the reader demands that we should not casually use words that are likely to offend. Use swearwords only when absolutely necessary to the facts of a piece, or to portray a character in an article; there is almost never a case in which we need to use a swearword outside direct quotes. The stronger the swearword, the harder we ought to think about using it.

Avoid using in headlines, pull quotes and standfirsts and never use asterisks, which are just a cop-out.”
Is this guidance being followed? Let’s look at the figures. Bluntly, up to 8 August the Observer published 272 articles with the word fuck and 13 using the word cunt. In contrast, the Independent on Sunday ran 122 pieces containing fuck and 10 cunt.

The Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were profanity-free zones, so the Observer has the dubious distinction of being the Sunday market leader – but before you think it is sinking inexorably into the mire, figures for the previous year suggest that the paper is beginning to clean up its act. In 2008-09, fuck appeared 293 times and cunt 25, so we can note a modest circumspection.

Nevertheless, this could be explained by the demise of three monthly magazines (Observer Woman, Sport Monthly and Music Monthly), which were prone to running pieces quoting the foul-mouthed without apparent regard to the guidance that they “should not casually use words that are likely to offend”. Too often, it seemed that a desire to be cool outweighed the obligation to think who might be reading.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I hate seeing swearwords in print. I certainly don’t pretend to be pure and unblemished in my own discourse, but I have a visceral dislike of seeing these words in the pages of a newspaper that is read by all ages.

I don’t go along with the argument that the Observer is a grown-up newspaper for grown-up people. Everything we write appears on the internet and is accessible, free, to anyone, whether they are nine or 90.

And how many children cover the kitchen table with pages of the paper when they get their paints out at home? (An expletive-peppered interview with Gordon Ramsay in our sister paper was once read aloud by an eight-year-old in a school art class.)

I would far rather we adopted the policy of some of our rivals and expunged swearing entirely. But occasionally – and I believe the Gervais interview to be a very rare example – it is necessary to report verbatim what somebody says if you are to give a truly accurate picture of their character.

Gervais has a massive following and yet how many of his fans know that he finds it not only acceptable but also hilarious to refer to Ian Hislop as “an ugly, pug-faced cunt” or who says of his critics that they are “jealous lying cunts whose lives haven’t turned out like they’d hoped and they want everyone to be as unhappy as they are”?

It’s unpleasant to read, but it tells you just what a nasty piece of work someone can be… and that’s the job of a newspaper.

This column was originally published in The Observer on Aug. 22, 2010.

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